American Catholicism: Time Magazine ’49 – ’53

While enjoying the sunshine and companionship of my brothers here in the Jesuit School of Theology I’m actually enrolled in a few classes as well.  One of them is a provocative course on the transformation that occurred in the religious life and culture of the American Catholic Church around the second Vatican Council.  I say provocative because our professor has the dozen or so of us reading various magazines from the years before, during, and after the council in order to get a plurality of perspectives on the Church in our country during these years.  I have to say that it’s been fascinating for me.  Just the style of writing alone (not mention the crazy advertisements!) can make the hours of wading through yellowed pages worthwhile.  Anyway, I thought that this kind of thing might be interesting for us here at Whosoever as well.  This week’s post is my effort to summarize what is happening in the American Catholic Church through the perspective of Time Magazine between the years 1949-53.  I found it incredible.  Hope the same is true for you.

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Time Magazine, founded in 1923, has had from its founding the oddly contemporary habit of conveying the news through the people who made it. News of the Catholic Church in United States during the years 1949 to 1953 is no exception to this policy as it is Catholic individuals, especially their particular charismatic quirks, who draw attention. Through these figures familiar tropes emerge: the sickly young boy who studies hard and grows into an imposing (yet kind) cleric clad in scarlet and ermine, the builder Bishop, the erudite yet worldly scholar-priest, the Catholic sports hero.  It’s through these persons that a typology of the concerns of American Catholicism during these years might be developed.  Any number of such themes might be picked out.  Amongst the most important, however, must be listed: Protestantism, anti-Communism, authority, evangelism, and the effort at being considered American.

Perhaps the most telling of these themes is the last listed: being an American.  Time’s style during these years, especially in its almost-overwhelming use of long quotations, allows Catholic leaders to speak for themselves about their concern to be considered Americans, especially when such an identity was under attack.  An example of such an attack can be seen in what was commonly called “the Blanshard book,” but was formally titled American Freedom and Catholic Power, by Manhattan Lawyer-Journalist Paul Blanshard.  The book is described as “a well-organized polemic against the Roman Catholic Church… written from an aggressively secular point of view.”  It especially enraged Catholics for its familiar picture of a “totalitarian Vatican out to undermine U.S. democracy.”

Blanshard was not alone during these years in his anti-Catholic arguments, however, as the detailed descriptions of a debate between one Dr. Bowie and renowned Jesuit scholar John Courtney Murray.  Bowie argued that the “clearly stated Roman Catholic purpose ‘to make America Catholic,’ if it succeeded, would jeopardize the religious and civil liberties which have been the glory of Protestant countries and of Protestant culture.”  He summed up his charges with the quip: “We do not want political dictatorship, and we do not want ecclesiastical dictatorship either.”  Murray, however, was not to be out-quipped in this instance. “To put the matter… in psychological terms” he replied, “it seems that hostility to the Catholic Church is profoundly lodged in the Protestant collective unconscious, in consequence perhaps of some natal trauma . . . For here is the old enemy, at which alone Protestantism knows how to strike. Against other enemies – the real ones today – its arm is somewhat palsied.”

The Catholic-Protestant cultural divide is not only depicted via a conflict of ideas, however.  Indeed, a wildly amusing story of a Lutheran family who enrolled their children in public school in Johnsburg, Illinois only to find the school staffed by nuns and priests summarizes the depth of this cultural divide.  The mother of the family was shocked to find that her children’s report cards bore grades in “religious training” and were stamped with the heading “Diocese of Rockford.”  “It seems to me,” she said, “that it’s part of America that a public school is one thing and a parochial school is another. When nuns are the teachers in a public school and the atmosphere is all Catholic, then that’s getting the idea of America all mixed up.”

While divisions between these two cultures is prevalent, frequent mention is also made of efforts toward ecumenism.  This is especially seen in the establishment of such organizations as The World Organization for Brotherhood, a group viewed as a counterpart to the national conferences of Christians and Jews which the had sprung up after the second world war. As is Time’s bent, the story of ecumenism is often told through people.  In this context, Jesuit Father, and longtime head of America Magazine, John LaFarge looms large.  He is depicted as having the “peculiar gift” of the ability to “get along with his opposite numbers in other religions,” and is much lauded for his cooperation with other religious groups working for social justice. “Union between men of different beliefs on the great basic truths of morality and religion,” he is quoted as saying, “I consider our principal defense in the ideological field today.”  Oddly, alongside such praise for ecumenism can also be seen evidence of something like envy for what is seen as Catholic clarity and certainty.  In a March 1951 article on Most Rev. Henry Knox Sherrill (“The No. I Protestant churchman in the U.S.” and President of the National Council of Churches) the unity of the “Roman Church” is opposed multiple times to the “quandaries” that divide Protestant denominations.

Another common theme which can be culled from Time’s pages is the praise the Church receives for her staunch stand against communism.  Such a stand is evidenced in even controversial choices, such as that taken by Cardinal Spellman of New York in 1949 against unions.  In March of that year Cardinal Spellman rode at the head of a long line of 100 black-clad seminarians through the lines of striking Catholic grave-diggers.  When asked about his choice the Cardinal replied: “I admit to the accusation of strikebreaker, and I am proud of it. If stopping a strike like this isn’t a thing of honor, then I don’t know what honor is.”  Although it is the Cardinal who is presented as the actor (even the hero) in the situation, Time does note some discord within what may have seemed to outsiders as the monolithic unity of the Church by quoting the head of the (Catholic) trade union, who denounces any association with Communism by replying: “With all reverence and respect for the cardinal, it is more important to recognize the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively in unions of their own choosing, and to pay the living a just wage, than to bury the dead.”

Another lens through which we can see Catholics being presented as both quintessentially American yet oddly distinctive is through the lens of sport.  Time picks up and comments on an American Ecclesiastical Review article on the disjunction between Canon Law and Catholic participation in boxing (or shall we say “pugilism”), provocatively noting the oddity of the Church looking down on boxing while noting that such prizefighting luminaries as Jake LaMotta and Gene Tunney are Catholics.  And, of course, it wouldn’t Catholic sports if Notre Dame Football weren’t involved.  An article focusing on halfback Johnny Lattner is exemplary, especially in the quotes chosen to distinguish Notre Dame from other (less successful and perhaps therefore less American, and even less holy) programs.  Lattner is quoted describing his arrival onto campus as a Freshman in distinctly Catholic language.  “I came down that driveway” he said, “and I saw that golden dome with the statue of our Blessed Mother all lighted up, and it was one of the biggest thrills of my life. I got kind of choked up, and I was awful glad I came here.”  And Lattner again: “The first night, they showed the movie Knute Rockne—All American [and I got] kind of choked up” all over again. “I mean I got a big bang out of it. I was ready to kill anybody who said a word against Notre Dame. I still am.”

The picture painted here, through Time Magazine’s lens, is of a confident, charismatic Church on the move.  A Church strong, hierarchical and unified, striving to be American by any means possible (especially through condemnation of Communism), proudly distinct and beginning to reach out to possible ecumenical partners.  As I read all of this I found myself filled with an odd mixture of nostalgia (for their unity and confidence of identity) and uncomfortability (maybe it was just a bristling against some perhaps misdirected authority and etc.).  I find it fascinating to watch our story unfold in these pages – so in a few days I’ll put up something on the Church between ’54 and ’58 as found in the pages of America Magazine.

Prayers all.

PG, SJ

2 Responses to American Catholicism: Time Magazine ’49 – ’53

  1. Qualis Rex says:

    Hello Paddy, very interesting insights. Like you, I was born long after these observations (and Vatican II) were written. I would like to underscore one of YOUR key observations of the church in this era: unity and confidence in identity. This is something that was effectively (and decisively) shattered post-Vatican II; not just in the US but around the world. It’s almostlaughable to think of how worried the Protestants were back then, when one looks at the state and utter disaster of the American Catholic church today. The vast majority of “Catholic” politicians, most conspicuously (but not exclusively) Democrat consistently espouse and vote against principles held by the church. And the American Catholic voters are themselves no better (Catholics overwhelmingly voted to elect the most pro-abortion president to hold office).

    As long as we have clergy and nuns who hide behind their collars and titles and pretend to be Catholic, while at the same time openly opposing church teaching and the hierarchy, or Catholics-in-name-only who actively try to dismantle the church from within until it conforms to their secular, moral-relativism, we will never experience the unity you observed from the Time article. And may God have mercy on our souls.

  2. Paddy,

    I’m curious about the reference to boxing in Canon Law. Is that in the old 1917 Canon Law text? I was often told growing up that the Catholic Church condemned prize fighting, but I’ve never been able to find where that comes from. Thanks

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